A crash. Good people. An archaeological site. Some Italians. Road blockades. Landslides. Pig crossings….A lot can happen in 12 hours.
Tuesday, January 23rd
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
I’m not sure when it started: My deep seated disdain for monkeys. There’s just something about them, right? Whatever the cause, I should have trusted my disinclination for these primates. Instead, I had taken my clothes to a “lavanderia” called El Chango Blanco, the White Monkey. (A lavanderia is a place where they wash your clothes for you for.)
My clothes had not been ready at the scheduled time, 8pm the previous night, and more than twelve hours later they were still not ready. I knew that I had a long day ahead of me and did not want to end up riding in the dark. Still, I tried to be kind and accommodating. There wasn’t much else one could do.
With my folded hostages now liberated, I headed back to my happy home: Hostal Marimba. I had met so many nice people here and the owners, Victor and Ali, really went beyond the call of duty in nursing me back to health after my stomach issue.
Packing a motorcycle is a tedious process. There is some sense of poetry to it, as each item has a specific and exact place, but it always takes longer than one would think. Having been stationary for nearly six days, I had managed to spread out a bit.
Time to begin the goodbyes. My new friend, Chiara, became the first Italian to sign Annie.
(Thanks, Ali and Victor, for the pictures)
Ali, Victor and even Kika (at foot level) really treated me like one of their own. I can’t imagine having a nicer place to throw up your guts in San Cristobal.
Exiting the hostel.
The previous day, I had been hoping to be on the road around 8:30. Some of the delays were out of my control, but I was already feeling a little apprehensive about making it to Palenque by the end of daylight.
I should maybe state explicitly that I did not need to go to Palenque. It is not on my route. This detour to the north would basically be a dead end turn-around. Still, I’d heard so many wonderful things about the ruins at Palenque, that it sounded worth my trip. Additionally, I would also get to visit the ruins at Tonina on the way. Two for the price of one.
Things like this burned out vehicle on the road always make me a little uneasy…
It is hard for me to describe the scenery. Mountainous? Yes. Tropical? Yes. Full of variety? Absolutely. I snapped this picture which includes evergreen trees, deciduous trees and palm trees. I don’t know if this is a rare occurrence, but I found it interesting.
I reached Ocosingo and fill up with gas. I had a real nice conversation with the attendants. One of them was thoroughly enamored with Sonic. He would spin his legs, then laugh, spin his legs, then laugh…. 🙂
We reached the archaeological site of Tonina. Tonina was a powerful Mayan kingdom. The site boasts the tallest pyramid in the Mayan world. For some reason, it is a less popular site than some of the other Mayan ruins. More for me to enjoy. 🙂
I parked Annie and walked to the little information booth. Amazingly they told me that there is no charge for entrance, but they had a little red cross bucket where you could contribute if you wanted.
The ruins are a bit of a walk from the lot, probably at least half of a mile.
….over a bridge…
….and up some stairs.
The grounds are peaceful and humble. Cows graze just a few yards from structures that are over 2,000 years old. It was sort of refreshing.
First up was the ball court, with the pyramid far in the distance.
I can’t describe the view of the pyramid from the ground. Unfortunately, the pictures don’t really do it justice either. It is a terraced design, featuring seven levels that stretch 230 ft into the sky.
It was really fun to explore: Go up a level…look around….repeat.
In the Palace of the Underworld:
Some thick walls.
“Steepness” is one of those things that is so hard to capture with a picture. This is about the best that I could do.
There was not a single informational plaque to be found. The only signs were the occasional ones that looked like this, informing you that it was OK to pass that way: (But maybe I was supposed to be bare-footed?)
This was the path of ascent on the second to last level. Can you see the stairs in this picture?
I must admit, my legs were a little tired. Though I had seen only a handful of people on my way up, I met a nice couple at the very top. They were Daniele and Paola from Italy. We did a brief language dance before leaning that English would serve us best. 🙂
I had a great time chatting with them and they had lots of good questions about my trip. Additionally, we learned that we were both heading to Palenque that evening. They asked me if I had heard about the protests and road blockades on the way. I had not. It was great that they gave me a heads up of what was to come.
Ok. Sorry for all of the words. Without further ado, the pictures from the top:
What’s that? You don’t believe I was actually there? Fine:
Back near the entrance, I saw Daniele and Paola again. They were in discussions with a couple of the guides about the road blockades on the way to Palenque and if there was any way to avoid them (they were travelling with a rental car). With the mountainous terrain, any detour would have added at least a couple of hours. My phone said that the normal route was about 2 and a half hours and there were only about 3 hours of daylight remaining. We all pretty much agreed that rolling the dice with the blockades was the best bet.
I showed them Annie, then Daniele and I talked about bikes for a bit. They left about five minutes ahead of me, but I noted their license plate so I could keep an eye out for them. I rode through Ocosingo and turned north to head towards Palenque. It was a nice ride until…..
A motorcycle has been my primary means of transportation for the last 16 years. I had never had a crash before. An innocuous looking left bank, would be the first obstacle to ever take me down.
I was going relatively slowly and was in what I thought was a good lane position. The turn was basically completed and my eyes were already looking down the straightaway. Suddenly I felt a little wobble from my front end. Just as I was beginning to wonder what was happening, I was slammed down on to my left side.
Much of Annie’s weight landed on my left ankle. I was momentarily pinned underneath, but we rotated counter clockwise until I was sliding ahead of Annie, on my back, head-first into the ditch.
As instantaneously as the crash happened, time slowed significantly during this slide. I had two main thoughts:
- “I can’t believe that the streak is over. I can no longer say that I’ve never had a motorcycle accident.
- “I don’t deserve this! I didn’t make a mistake. There’s no reason that I should be sliding along this road right now.
Annie and I came to rest among some roadside trash, just off of the paved surface. I took a couple of rapid breaths, then began taking mental inventory of my extremities. Everything moved, but my left leg was really painful. I had a moment of pure suspense as I gathered the courage to raise my head and look at it with my eyes. I feared I would see a bone sticking out or my foot pointing in some abstract direction.
“Whew. Everything looks OK.”
I dropped my head again and took a few more rapid breaths.
Suddenly, some figures approached from my left. I blinked to bring my eyes into focus, then blinked some more when I did not believe what I saw. It was my new Italian friends, Daniele and Paola.
I was confused, but very thankful.
They encouraged me to lay still and not rush getting to my feet. I took the process slowly, sitting up and removing my helmet first. After a bit of time in the seated position, I stood up without too much difficulty.
First physical damage assessment, not too bad:
Shortly after I made it to my feet, there were probably 20-30 people around the crash site. There were a number of truck-buses (basically just a pickup with some caging and tarping in the bed area, used to efficiently transport LOTS of people) that drove by and stopped and some other bikers. I took some pictures of this pandemonium, but those did not save for some reason. 😦
I gave a brief speech to the gathered throng, thanking them for stopping, telling them I’d never had a crash before and letting them know I was just fine. I’m not sure why I felt the need to do this.
I decided to leave Annie lay, while I surveyed the scene and took some pictures. After a few minutes, most of the people had dispersed.
We noticed that there was quite a bit of spilled diesel fuel in the right tire track of my lane. Though I am still unsure about the exact nature of the crash, this seems like the likeliest culprit. Before the crash, I hadn’t registered it as an obstacle to be avoided. This makes me think that I was probably turning a little wider than I thought.
Daniele helped me get Annie picked up and we began looking her over. His first concern was my shift lever (operated with the left foot), which was undamaged. Nothing was really broken, except for the camera mount I use for “Sonic Cam” videos. My phone holder had detached from the mount, but the screen was undamaged. That streak remains intact. The left hand guard and side case were pretty scraped up though.
The side case was bent inwards, but not enough to be an immediate impediment. I hopped back on and did a couple of passes (on the straight part, not the curve) testing braking and handling. Everything appeared in order.
Daniele and Paola were really the best. They offered me to sit down in the car for awhile if I needed to and would have done anything for me. Though I was still a little dazed, I had the wherewithal to ask them to sign Annie. Three Italians in one day!
Next, I made a pretty big mistake. I was only about 5km from Ocosingo and I could have found a place to stay there. With the uncertainty of the road ahead, that was obviously the correct decision. Looking back on it, I have no idea why I decided to continue towards Palenque. Maybe this is just another lesson in why it is unwise to make decisions while in a traumatized state of mind.
The first few miles were terrible. Every bend in the road (and there are thousands on this one) felt like I was going down. It was absolutely nerve wracking.
The rains began.
I should not need to explain how unfortunate this was. The damp surface made the perpetual cornering even more difficult. I stopped to put on my rain gear and boot covers. It was at this point that I realized that my ankle was beginning to swell rapidly. I could hardly put any weight on it. Getting suited up was much more challenging than usual.
In addition, I didn’t have enough flexibility in my ankle to up-shift. I had to do so by pulling my whole leg upwards.
Right where the guide at Tonina had indicated, I reached the first road blockade. A large Coca-Cola truck blocked most of the road and the remainder was secured with homemade spike strips. There was not a very long line of vehicles, so I just waited a minute before it was my turn. I didn’t see any guns, but I still wanted to proceed very cautiously.
(I may post video later. I’m struggling with internet right now.)
I asked them what the protest was about and they gave me a sheet explaining it. I read later that the protest stems from an incident where the driver of a Coca-Cola truck was beaten and robbed by bandits, but the company did not offer any compensation.
Trying to stay on their good side, I told them that I had a website where I could write about this. They said that they would charge me 50 pesos (about $3) to pass. I didn’t offer any argument. They were true to their word, removing the spike strips and letting me go through after I paid.
I continued on slowly and laboriously. At one point I got passed by a portly couple on a 125cc (Annie is 670cc) Italika (a really cheap Mexican motorcycle company). I was already worried about darkness, but I could not bring myself to ride with any sort of speed.
Did I mention that the road was not in the best of conditions?
A loooong line of vehicles appeared as I entered a little town. I recognized a white VW a few cars ahead and went to speak with Daniele and Paola again. They said that they had no idea what was going on, but that the line of traffic was really long. I also found out that we had paid the same price at the previous blockade. I decided to start riding to the front to see what I could see. There was probably at least a half mile of standing traffic.
(You can see the dry spots beneath the vehicles. Traffic hadn’t moved since the rains began.)
There were some large rocks placed on the road preventing vehicles from passing. I stopped a ways back and thought about my next move. There were some locals watching proceedings, sheltered under awnings from the rain. They whistled at me (Mexicans don’t yell “hey,” they just whistle when they want to get someone’s attention) and signaled that I could go through. I walked to the line of rocks and nonchalantly slid one over with my foot to make sure I had room to cross.
I rode through no man’s land and was soon stopped by a group of three guys. They told me what they wanted in rapid-fire Spanish. With the rain plinking on my helmet and my limited command of the language, I understood none of it. Using the polite, formal form, I asked if he could repeat himself. One of the other guys came closer to my face and shouted “Money!” in English. I asked how much they wanted and they said 10 pesos (about 50 cents). Done deal. This protest had something to do with a school, but I couldn’t make out what was being said.
This blockade was the last time that I saw Daniele and Paola. I should have exchanged information with them. I still don’t know if they made it to Palenque this night or if they had to turn around.
Though neither of these blockades were too serious, I think that these are the kind of things that give people pause about travelling in a place like Mexico. It gives the impression that the people can do whatever they want without intervention from the authorities. I’ve felt very safe during my time in Mexico, but there was definitely a “wild west” aspect to this day.
This was not the appointed sunset time, but the thick rain clouds were blocking the last traces of daylight. I only had about 50 miles remaining to get to Palenque, but it was still going to be a long ride. Reaching 30 mph was a rarity. Visibility when it is both dark and rainy is extremely limited.
Despite all that it had thrown at me, the road began to have concerns that I was actually going to get the best of it. Accordingly, it began to disappear into muddy, sandy patches in some places.
I was finally at the limit of what I could mentally bear. Though I would like to tell you that it was just some rain which had penetrated my visor, I have to confess that they were real tears which trickled down my cheeks. I’m still not entirely sure what brought them on. I suppose it was a mixture of physical pain, the fear that I was going to crash again at any moment, the concern that the injury to my left leg might actually be serious and the endless perpetuality of challenges that the road was presenting to me. In some strange way, I felt that this road was going to be the end of me.
Normally I believe that crying is a healthy experience, but in this instance it was just a further inconvenient impediment to my vision.
I scraped Annie’s underside on one of the mountainous topes (speed bumps) in a little village. It was the last one for the village, so I began to accelerate away. My headlights caught the sight of something huge in the road. The first thing my weary mind registered was “buffalo.” As I got closer, I saw it was just a gigantic pig. He did not acknowledge my presence as I carefully coasted passed.
I had my first glimpse of the lights of Palenque. I almost felt a little surprised that I was going to make it.
I made it to Casa Janaab, my home for the night. It is a hostel owned by an adjacent hotel. Before ringing the bell, I sat down and began to strip off my rain gear. My left leg was hardly usable. Each movement of my ankle caused lots of pain.
The staff got me set up and let me bring Annie into the gated courtyard. I had a bed in a three person room. Shortly after I arrived I met my roommate, Francisco from Argentina. He was a huge help. I knew I had to clean the wound on my knee, but I was not looking forward to hiking out and trying to find a pharmacy that was still open. Thankfully, Francisco had some hydrogen peroxide and antibiotic ointment with him that he let me have.
Francisco, the next day:
The first hydrogen peroxide treatment on my knee was incredibly painful. Still, it was a relief to know it was clean.
I guess sometimes the pain is worth it.
Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
Realtime update: Whew…I’m glad that’s done. It was a bit tough to relive that day again. I’ve made it to Lake Atilan in Guatemala after two long days of riding. I’ll take a day or two here before heading to Antigua Guatemala.